It’s amazing that, with the modern attention span the way it is, the BBC has managed to keep any programme going for over 60 years. That’s a testament to a wonderful variety of writers, producers, and editors, it’s a tribute to the management that held faith and more than anything it’s a case study in how taking a punt on an innovative idea can produce something astounding.
The Archers, recorded in the Borsestshire village of Ambridge — but produced and broadcast from the nearby big city of Birmingham — is not only wonderful entertainment, but was the world’s first ‘scripted reality’ show. The genre, with The Only Way Is Essex, Geordie Shore and Midlands Today all riding high in the ratings, feels like the very definition of NOW: but did you know it started in May of 1950 for those of us in the Midlands, and on 1 January 1951 for the rest of the country? We’ve all been listening for 64 years and counting, or maybe it just feels like that.
But innovative and important though it is, The Archers’ tales of everyday country folk are a pernicious cancer at the heart of our Public Service Broadcasting.
The series was originally produced with ‘input’ from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, leading to pressure on the producers to feed lines to the villagers. Some conspiracy theorists, the same ones that claim not to be able to find Ambridge on a map, say that whole episodes and storylines have been carefully scripted – although we see no evidence of this.
The government’s angle was to disseminate ‘information to farmers and smallholders to help increase productivity in the post-World War II years of rationing and food shortages’, which may have been true at the time. The state interference in the media in this case is very much the thin end of the wedge: which is a term used to describe a practice that is likely to get worse and not a polite Radio 4 way of referring to Walter Gabriel’s “old pal”, me old beauty.
The ability to nudge the listener by nudging the people of Ambridge sent the corporation a little power crazy. We all remember the scandals over phone-in competitions and the like. After investigations by the tabloids it turned out that everyone from Lord Reith to Bob Monkhouse had at some point had their fingers in the till (or in something else entirely): and it’s hard to think that someone at the BBC isn’t getting a backhander from sales of Tom Archer’s organic wieners.
Having got away with it here, it was a short step to installing a former Young Conservative Chairman as chief political editor and completely neutering the entire organisation’s news output under the pretext of the Hutton Inquiry.
We can balance these black sheep in the BBC flock with the wonderful example of diversity that the village shows the rest of Britain: the array of accents on the programme is tremendous – as is the effort that some of the stars show in vocalising their actions for the radio, even when clearly suffering from breathing difficulties. It’s not uncommon to hear a Midlander, a Geordie, a Londoner and someone who has watched too much of Russ Abbott’s C.U. Jimmy character all in one pub conversation. This is tremendous, not only for multiculturalism but also as it’s much easier to tell the people apart than it is on Made in Chelsea.
The Archers, then, it opened the door for the sort of meddling that will eventually kill the BBC, but it is a wonderful mirror to society. And we have Birmingham to thank.